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6 (or so) players to watch in the MLB Division Series

The Division Series gets underway on Thursday, and there are some interesting storylines to follow.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox - Game 2 Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

After what has become normal for the pair of MLB Wild Card Games — one instant classic, one snoozer dominated by the home team — we are now onto the Division Series. The National League gets things kicked off on Thursday with a pair of tilts, the first starting at 5:00 p.m. Eastern. The American League will join in the fun on Friday, giving us our annual quadruple header of baseball playoff awesomeness.

While we’re mostly focused on the Detroit Tigers around here, it’s always fun to follow along with the rest of baseball throughout the postseason. If you’re not as familiar with these clubs, though, don’t worry; we have you covered. From playoff predictions that are already wrong to our postseason rooting guide to whatever brilliance Grant Brisbee is writing today, there is plenty of content for you to consume before things get started this evening — we’ll also have open threads where you can chat about the game!

In the meantime, here are a few players to watch for during this year’s Division Series.

Red Sox LHP Chris Sale

What to watch for: Can he bounce back after a rough 2017 ALDS?

After years of sitting home in October while playing for the Chicago White Sox, Chris Sale finally got his first taste of postseason action in 2017.

It didn’t go well, though. Sale was rocked by the Houston Astros in Game 1 of last year’s ALDS, allowing seven runs on nine hits in just five innings. The ‘Stros took him deep three times, and the rout was on. Houston won Game 1 8-2, and Boston never really threatened in the rest of the series. While Sale was OK in relief for a little while in Game 4, you can be sure he is chomping at the bit to prove that last year was a fluke (one might say he’s ready to slice through anything in his way). The Red Sox are heavy favorites to win the World Series after bulldozing everything in their path in the regular season, but likely won’t make it far if Sale struggles again.

Braves SS Charlie Culberson

What to watch for: Can he replace Dansby Swanson?

Dansby Swanson’s doppelganger is also his replacement in the NLDS, as the former No. 1 overall pick is not on Atlanta’s postseason roster. Swanson has been dealing with a wrist injury for most of the season, and was recently diagnosed with a partially torn ligament in his left hand. While his play on the field hasn’t been great this season — he hit just .238/.304/.395 in 533 plate appearances — he graded out as one of the better defensive shortstops in the game this year. If you go by 2018 regular season numbers, Culberson appears to be a big step up offensively over Swanson, but he is a career .248/.295/.383 hitter even after you add in his 112 OPS+ this season. His value normally resides in his versatility, as manager Brian Snitker can use him in just about any situation. Culberson is also nowhere near the defender Swanson is, though he has graded out positively in a small handful of innings at shortstop in his career.

He also played for the Dodgers last year. Could Culberson deliver some postseason revenge to his former team?

Indians SS Francisco Lindor and IF Jose Ramirez

What to watch for: Will they show up this year?

This is a harsh question, admittedly, but one worth asking after Lindor and Ramirez went a combined 4-for-38 in last year’s ALDS loss to the New York Yankees. The Tribe scored just five runs in Games 3-5 after taking a 2-0 lead on the Yanks last October, and that failure — fair or not — falls on Cleveland’s two best players. The Indians are already viewed as the weak link of this year’s American League postseason teams, but the core of this team was inches away from a World Series title just two years ago. The pitching should be just fine again. Their offense will determine how far they go, and that starts with Lindor and Ramirez at the top of their lineup.

Brewers OF Christian Yelich

What to watch for: Can he stay this hot?

Between what he did against the Tigers last weekend and all of the hype he has garnered over the past several days, most people are finally aware of just how hot Christian Yelich has been in the second half of 2018. He has drawn comparisons to Barry Bonds, among others, and is probably a shoo-in to win the National League MVP. The postseason is different, though, and Yelich (and most of his Brewers teammates) will be dealing with playoff pressures for the first time. Can he continue to carry this Brewers offense to October glory?

Astros RHP Justin Verlander

What to watch for: Can he solve the Indians?

Tigers fans know all about Verlander’s struggles with the Cleveland Indians, especially at Progressive Field. He has not faced the Tribe since leaving for Houston, though, a streak that will likely be snapped on Friday (Houston has not yet named their Game 1 starter). While this start will come at Minute Maid Park, where Verlander posted a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 11.3 this season, he has a career ERA of 4.71 against the Tribe, and gave up 19 runs in 21 innings against them last season. The ‘Stros have a strong enough rotation that Verlander shouldn’t be needed on short rest in Game 4 — a game in Cleveland, remember — but there would be plenty of narratives surrounding that start should it come about.

The entire Dodgers lineup

What to watch for: Can they be stopped?

Here is a list of Dodgers players who managed a wRC+ below 112 in September.

Walker Buehler
Alex Verdugo
Ross Stripling
Andrew Toles
Brian Dozier
Chase Utley
Rich Hill
Julio Urias
Alex Wood
Rocky Gale

Sure, this list would be a lot shorter without the pitchers on it — only Verdugo, Toles, Dozier, Utley, and Gale would remain — but it goes to show just how hot the Dodgers offense has been lately. They have more players (15) above that 112 wRC+ marker than below (10), and over half of those 15 are at 150 or higher. Meanwhile, those on the bad list likely won’t play much; Toles, Verdugo, and Utley aren’t on the Dodgers’ playoff roster, and Dozier is something of a platoon player at this point.

In other words: this lineup is a buzzsaw.